May 25, 2001

Meaning of Memorial Day

"…from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address


It's a sacred day to all war veterans. None need to be reminded of the reason why Memorial Day must be commemorated. But what about the general public, and more importantly, future generations? Do most non-veterans really recognize the importance of May 30?

Judging from what Memorial Day has become--simply another day off from work--the answer is a resounding no. Perhaps a reminder is due then. And it is the duty of each and every veteran to relay the message.

Why Remember? Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance. America's collective consciousness demands that all citizens be aware of and recall on special occasions the deaths of their fellow countrymen during wartime.

Far too often, the nation as a whole takes for granted the freedoms all Americans enjoy. Those freedoms were paid for with the lives of others few of us actually knew. That's why they are all collectively remembered on one special day.

This should be regarded as a civic obligation. For this is a national debt that can only be truly repaid by individual Americans. By honoring the nation's war dead, we preserve their memory and thus their service and sacrifice.

Who Are We Remembering? The nation mourns the loss of all Americans who died defending their country throughout the world since 1775. These are men and women who have remained mostly anonymous expcet to the families who loved them.

They came from all walks of life and regions of the country. But they all had one thing in common--love of and loyalty to country. This bond cemented ties between them in times of trials, allowing a diverse lot of Americans to achieve monumental ends.

Who were they? They were relatives, friends and neighbors melded together to perform a service for an entire society--they were the nation's defenders.

Memorial Day is exclusively for honoring those who died serving in uniform during wartime.

What Are We Remembering? We remember the loss of defenders, a sense of loss that takes group form. In essence, America is commemorating those who made the greatest sacrifice possible--giving one's own life selflessly.

This remembrance is all inclusive, spanning 226 years and some 60 military actions that claimed 1.4 million lives.

Most Americans are familiar with the major wars--Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf--but few think of those killed in "minor" frays.

Examples of the lesser-known actions range from the Franco-American Naval War (1798-1800) to the tragedy of the USS Cole. No American death is too insignificant to remember when that life was lost at the behest of society.

GIs do not choose where they serve or what foreign policy they must enforce. The death of a sailor in the Gulf is every bit as important as one killed in the Pacific during WWII. Such distinctions are irrelevant.

How Do We Remember? Means of paying tribute vary. Pausing for a few moments of personal silence is an option for everyone.

Attending commemorative ceremonies is the most visible way of demonstrating remembrance; placing flags at gravesites, marching in parades, sponsoring patriotic programs, dedicating memorials and wearing Buddy Poppies are examples.

Whether done individually or collectively, it is the thought that counts. Personal as well as public acts of remembering are the ideal. Public displays of patriotism are essential if the notion of remembering war dead is to be instilled in the young.

As America's war vets fast disappear from society's notice, there are fewer and fewer standard bearers left to carry the torch of remembrance. Such traditions will live on only if there is a vibrant movement to which that torch can be passed.

When Do We Remember? Until the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.I. 90-363), Memorial Day was observed each May 30.

That custom became a tradition with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans organization that made honoring Civil War dead a civic duty for all citizens. Until 1882, the practice of placing flowers at gravesites was known as Decoration Day.

A GAR order had called for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

New York was the first state--in 1873--to legalize May 30. By 1890, all northern states had followed suit.

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.

Perhaps the most profound tribute of all was made on the first national memorial observance in May 1868 by then General James A. Garfield when he said: "They summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue."

VFW Magazine May 2001

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